No man’s sky (cover)
DRONE CON IS THE ULTIMATE MEETING PLACE FOR THE PROFESSIONAL UAV INDUSTRY AND LINDSEY SCHUTTERS WENT IN TO EAVESDROP ON THE CONVERSATIONS.
Africa gets set for a drone revolution
“MY NAME IS GEOFFREY NYAGA KINYUA
and I’m 25 years old. I was born in a village on the slopes of Mount Kenya, about 400 kilometres outside of Nairobi,” says a tall, slender, unassuming-looking man. The auditorium seems unmoved by his story. Understandably, because it’s day two of the conference and it’s right before the lunch break. The professional drone industry in South Africa is also dominated by the kind of men who went all-in on the idea of South African engineering excellence leading the continent. The speaker tries again. “From a young age, I was always fascinated by technology, particularly aircraft.” It’s a fascination that turned into practical experience, he explains. He recalls how he was the first person in his country to successfully design, build and fly a fixed-wing drone.
It doesn’t matter. He’s losing the crowd. Everyone in the room at least knows of someone who built their own multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
“In January, I started my employment at Astral Aerial, a subsidiary of Astral Aviation, and along with my two colleagues we’re interested in solutions to last-mile delivery problems in Africa. We are addressing this with an innovation called the Flyox. This drone has a payload capability of 2 050 kg and an incredible range of 1 240 km. It is also capable of water landings.”
The room has suddenly gone quiet, awfully quiet.
Nyaga ploughs on. His video presentation shows a cargo plane taking off and landing in a very shallow puddle. There’s no pilot inside.
The silence has deepened. But the audience is wide awake now.
“The drone can stay up in the air for twenty-six hours in surveillance mode, but we’ll mainly use it for cargo in the humanitarian space and crop surveying. At Astral we also have a surveillance drone called Guardian Eye that has a payload of 7,5 kg and now an extended flight time of eight hours after we added solar panels on the craft.”
To put it in perspective: Denel’s Bateleur drone is the local endurance champion, with flight times between 18 and 24 hours. It is, however, a military drone and builds on Denel’s impressive-for-the-90s Seeker. To achieve a third of that flight time without military funding is crazy.
But projects like Flyox and Guardian Eye aren’t the stars of Astral Aerial’s show. Instead it’s the company’s awardwinning concept for unmanned air traffic management that intends to revolutionise the continent’s drone policies. The plan is to separate the sky into highways, almost. In a similar move, Amazon is developing air traffic control software for its unmanned delivery drones to integrate seemlessly into existing air traffic. “It will enable safe low-altitude drone operations, providing airspace access and geofencing, real-time identification and separation of airborne traffic, and flight planning including contingency management and severe weather avoidance,” said the company in a May 2017 statement, ahead of rolling out developments in France.
IN A DISCUSSION AFTER HIS PRESENTATION,
Nyaga revealed to Popular Mechanics that Flyox is undergoing testing for an Alibaba subsidiary. Kenya seems to be the perfect staging ground for this innovation for two reasons: l Amazon doesn’t have a large presence l There are no real street addresses outside of the city centres, which creates a larger margin for error. Flyox would then be used, for instance, to courier packages from Nairobi to Nyaga’s home village.
“As you know, Africa is very vast. Sixtytwo per cent of Africans, me included, live in rural areas. What is more exciting is that 60 per cent of the population (continental) comprises the youth, who have adopted technology. Drones have spread from South Africa throughout the rest of the continent,” explains Nyaga.
“My colleagues and I are interested in solutions to last-mile delivery problems in Africa”
But drones have not filled the Kenyans with unbridled enthusiasm. Especially when it comes to public use. “That has been informed by the problems we have encountered in detecting low-flying drones. To counter this, we have developed a framework to detect and legislate drones and are interfacing that with the legislators.”
Astral Aerial is setting out to make sure that drones don’t encroach on commercial airspace. The plan is a system of geofencing around restricted airspace such as hospitals and embassies.
The company is also seeking to establish common operating standards for all operators to work on a common platform through which information will be shared. Ultimately, the system is intended to integrate the company’s drones into international airspace. A smart move for a company selling a cargo drone with the ability to cross borders.
DRONE CON IS THE YOUNGEST OF THREE drone industry conferences in South Africa, but still the organisers managed to assemble a wide variety of speakers from all spheres of commercial UAV operations. Our local industry, although dominated by mining and conservation operations, also supports a healthy land surveying and film community. The event was organised by United Drone Holdings and chaired by its CEO Sean Reitz. To be fair to Mr Reitz, it was almost solely his baby. Which is by no means a bad thing.
In his snapshot summary of the macroeconomic impact of the South African drone industry 2017, economist Dr Roelof Botha estimated the year-ending turnover at two billion rand. There’s also said to be 24 667 jobs related to unmanned aviation. “In the EU, by 2021 they’re expecting to have seven million drones in the air for leisure activities and 3,5 million in the US,” he says. The technology’s pervasiveness translates into smaller but equally impressive numbers on the commercial side: 400 000 in the EU and one million in the US. “Fifty thousand drones are registered in the US every month. That is unbelievable. The value of drone-related activity in the EU is estimated at 10 billion Euro per annum over the next decade, which is almost double our total agriculture production.”
Those numbers suggest that drones are a far bigger thing than we could ever have imagined. “The timing of the launch of a one-ton capacity drone in China is 2019, which relates to research done there on the cost saving of delivering by drone. And it’s something like 70 per cent,” he continues. Botha believes that these numbers should be verified and sent through to government so that the lawmakers can be better informed about the cost and then act in the interests of growing the industry.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority estimates that, for every registered remote pilot aerial system (RPAS) in the sky, there are two or three unlicensed craft. The number of RPASES registered each year grew from 216 in January of 2016 to 465 in 2017. Remote pilot licenses stood at 33 in 2016 and a year later had increased tenfold. It’s clear to see that there is rampant illegal activity happening within the sector.
Albert Msithini, Civil Aviation Authority RPAS project lead, explained that the regulatory challenges stemmed from the exponential boost in the numbers of small airspace users, the low cost of personal aviation and the fact that these aircraft are designed by mainly non-aviation engineers. Though his comments weren’t an attack on the engineering expertise behind some of the commercially available drones, it must be made clear that drone manufacture is a largely unregulated industry.
South Africa’s aviation authorities are committed to align with global RPAS developments, Msithini says. It’s also confident, he adds, that drone technology will improve aviation safety and reduce related costs. But in the midst of all that positive talk there’s the realisation that malicious intent and potential threat will exist. And, in response to that, the authorities will always err on the side of caution.
FLOURISHING IS NOT EXACTLY HOW YOU’D
describe the relationship between commercial drone operators and their commercial aviation counterparts in South Africa. This emerged on Day One of the conference. The impassioned plea from Commercial Aviation Association CEO Leon Dillman during his keynote: become part of the solution.
That problem Dillman was alluding to is the tight controls the CAA has imposed on drone flight. It is almost impossible to become a certified operator under the current industry regulations, which require business plans and multiple-person command chain organisations as part of the application. This set-up protects the current commercial operations licence holders, but stifles the industry as a whole, especially small businesses such as wedding photographers.
Currently, there’s a big push for a tiered system of operator licences. The good news is that the broader industry supports this.
The other important concern doing the rounds at the conference is the holy grail of commercial operations: beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Retief Gouws of Denel Dynamics whet appetites with tales of the Seeker drone BVLOS testing. If you thought drone technology was a new thing, you’re wrong. Seeker was introduced in 1986 and retired in 1994. A few are still in operation, hunting rhino poachers, but the Seeker was mainly deployed during the border war.
Technology flows downhill, with the military at the very top and the likes of land surveyors profiting from the scraps of combat. Then it moves into the mines, agriculture and, ultimately, to the general public. While all the stands on the conference expo floor had a DJI Matrice as the main rig, where you saw custom craft, you could be sure that it was meant for something higher up in the heirarchy.
On the land surveying side, the Lidar systems run into millions of rand. That’s just the camera, not even the cost of the drone. Excavation and mining use remote detonators that can also be considered as drones because of their unmanned nature.
The overriding impression is this: if you could criticise the South African drone industry of one thing, it would never be about the professionalism. Naivety, however, seems rampant.
Flyox is years ahead of anything our commercial operators are working on. In one video that gazed into the future of drone applications, there was a quadcopter inside an elaborate mesh ball doing pipe inspections. The technology and its associated applications is still a new con- cept on our shores, but it seems as though the wow factor has stunned our innovators into silence.
Yes, DJI has achieved something amazing. It keeps on improving its products, to the point where it has a drone for every application. But surely there are niche industries that require something unique? Why was Takealot not at the conference to talk about its movements in the drone delivery space?
The South African drone industry is alive and well and business may be booming, but faces a combination of over-cautious regulation and a community of licensed operators that is stuck in a paradox of wanting to ring-fence its economy and wanting to get more innovation into the sector. Two-billion-rand industries aren’t built in a day; fortunately, conversations at events like Drone Con are laying a solid foundation for the empire to come.
1. Guardian Eye is Astral Aerial’s surveillance and inspection drone.
2. Flyox can land on water and unpaved runways. 3. The Flyox ground station can fit inside of a stripped-out Vito. 4. Kinyua stunned Drone Con with the Flyox.
Geoffrey Nyaga Kinyua holds a B Eng degree in aeronautical engineering from the Technical University of Kenya, the poster child for African millennial disruption.
The drone demo area was the exhibitors’ space to show off their technological prowess. Inaccessible to plebs like us.
Astral Aerial’s universal air traffic management concept won the company a $20 000 International Air Transport Association Cargo innovation Award at the 2017 World Cargo Symposium.
The DJI Phantom is like the iphone of UAVS, it changed public perception of an entire industry and is the reason most pilots get their RPL.